Winter Crappie Fishing Is HOT Now!

by Chris McCotter

By Walter Claxton

Many Virginia anglers can find and catch crappie in April when they are spawning, but how do those elite freckle anglers find the truly big, saddlebag-sized fish prior to the spawn? Is it a well-kept secret of the old timers or a series of subtle insights gained by panfish addicts spending countless days on the water?

   Perhaps understanding crappie behavior is a good place to start. Beginning and longtime freckle fishermen should understand that when water temperatures are in the 40’s crappie are schooled in over-wintering areas – generally February in Virginia. These areas are usually deep and near bait.

  Now, when water warms into the 50-52 degree range, the crappie migrate from creek and/or river channels and follow the food. This can come in the form of threadfin shad or other small fish, even invertebrates like freshwater shrimp and insect nymphs – all of which tends to be in shallower water by March.

  If shallow structure is present, these fish will go from feeding and begin the spawning process around 55-degrees, selecting a nest site, creating a nest and attracting a female (s). 

   At around 58-60 degrees, the largest females will begin visiting the nests and depositing eggs. These truly trophy fish will only be shallow a few days before they move back out into deeper water. 

   Besides understanding the biological habits, a good way to find out how to catch big crappie is to learn from other anglers. 

Richmond Crappie Club Ace

  Josh Morris is the Tournament Director for the Richmond Crappie Club. He fishes for freckles all over the state. He employs a live sonar system to actually locate and watch fish. He says it’s incredibly helpful to see exactly where a crappie is relative to the structure they are on as well as see how a fish reacts to his bait presentation.

  “In the late winter we typically try to target the suspended, roaming crappie. With the use of livescope (and a lot of practice) we can selectively pick out the bigger fish and present our bait to these fish hoping to get a bite. It’s a challenging technique to learn, but YouTube has a lot of helpful information. 

  By using the gridlines on the livescope and adjusting the range, we can get a general sense of the size of the fish on the screen. From there we’re able to look at the shape of the fish and gauge an idea about whether or not the fish may be a crappie. You’re typically looking for a football shape roughly one foot long (give or take a few inches). 

  There are several ways to target these suspended roamers, but one of the easiest ways is by using a trolling rod. 

  Prior to livescope, I would idle with a split screen showing side imaging and traditional down view. The side view would allow me to find the crappie that I didn’t drive directly across and the down imaging would help me determine the precise depth of the fish. 

  I later learned that crappie will drop down in depth as your boat travels across them so the depth you see on down imaging is the maximum depth you’ll want to fish, plus most of the time crappie look for bait above them. From there I would spider rig with eight rods in the winter time and vary the depths of the baits until we figured out the ideal depth for that day.     

   After getting livescope, I continued to spider rig but I would use livescope to know the precise depth of the fish and adjust all of the baits accordingly. With a lot of practice, a single rod can be used more efficiently in order to cover more water and target the bigger fish. Once you find a fish that you want to target, slow the boat down and ease up to the fish. Present your bait above the fish and wait. When casting you’re waiting for the thump, but most of these suspended fish will hit the bait while swimming up so it’s not uncommon to not feel the bite at all. 

   There are several ways to rig the rod, but I’ve started using two bobber stops with a ½ oz tungsten egg weight or bullet weight in between them. I’ve started using tungsten because the denser material shows up brighter on the livescope. The bobber stops are so that the distance between the weight and the hook can be easily adjusted – the clearer the water, the greater the distance. I vary the type of bait underneath depending on the conditions – an Aberdeen hook, jig head with a minnow, plastic on a jig head, hair jig, etc. Just because livescope shows you the fish certainly does not mean that the fish are going to bite. Every day is different and the presentation of the bait needs to be adjusted accordingly. 

   Some of my favorite hooks and baits include Bobby Garland’s baby shad in Monkey Milk color paired with Mr. Crappie lead head jigs in 1/32 oz and 1/16 oz, 1/32 oz hand tied hair jigs by NicTaylors Jigs, and a #2 or #4 size tru-turn hook with a minnow. 

  The Catch The Fever 16’ medium heavy precision trolling rod is currently my rod of choice. I pair it with 10 lb Slime Line Super Stretch. 

  The reel I use was the cheapest reel I could find at the time because this is the least important item when tight lining. I do, however, have a strong preference towards using a left-handed baitcaster. Most of the time I’m tight lining less than 16’ deep with my 16’ rod so I actually have to let line out in order to bring the fish to the boat. The baitcaster allows me to do this easily with one hand and then if I happen to need to reel up any slack I can set the net down and reel up some slack with my left hand.    

  As for casting, I love my 5’6” Ultra Light-Moderate Fenwick Eagle rod paired with a Sedona 500 reel. 

Buggs Freckle Boss

   Bobby Whitlow owns Bobcat’s Bait & Tackle and fishes regularly on Buggs Island Lake on the Virginia/North Carolina border. He loves to crappie fish with friends and family on the 50,000-acre lake he calls home. 

   Buggs is a massive impoundment, so it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Traditional big crappie areas on Whitlow’s water include the stumpy flats in the backs of major creeks like Bluestone, Buffalo, Butcher’s, Rudd’s and Eastland.

  Before the fish move up on these flats, though, Whitlow is targeting crappie suspended around and over underwater structure. He fishes mostly sunken brushpiles in late winter, but he has found good fish on bridge pilings and old road beds/underwater bridges.

  Once the fish move up onto the flats, Whitlow’s tactics change. He does a lot of trolling in the late winter/early spring, mostly March and early April. At this time the fish are foraging in 3-5’ of water feeding on baitfish. This accomplished tournament angler trolls his jigs and live minnows not using the outboard, just the trolling motor. 

     At some point, usually on a full moon, Whitlow switches to targeting wood in the backs of these same creeks. Casting a jig or using it under a float and twitching, is his preferred tactic now. This is also when the fish begin spawning.      

   Whitlow notes: “If you catch a big crappie, in most cases, there’s more around very close. They stay together.”

Lake Anna Speck 

  Lake Anna guide C.C. McCotter has fished Lake Anna for 29 years for bass, striper and crappie. His crappie nickname is Slab Daddy based on the number of citation fish he has caught and guided his clients to.

    He says timing is important to catching the truly trophy specks.

  “Our fishing just doesn’t get consistent until late February or sometimes March. We need three days of warm nights (above 50 degrees), a southerly breeze, water around 49-52 degrees and a full moon helps to get the fish thinking about moving shallow.”   

    He offers this good tip when you do find some crappie – don’t linger when the small fish are biting.

  “You simply must move off small crappie if you want to catch the bigger ones. They school according to size. Yes, it can be fun to catch a bunch, but when you’re after the big ones, you must be willing to move on.” 

    He’ll usually tie on a Bass Pro Shops’ Crappie Maxx Pro Minnow Jighead. The sharp-nosed, minnow-shaped jighead permits even the lightest baits to fall with little drag and keels the baits on a true line. A double wire keeper holds a crappie grub securely and that equals more fish per bait.

   A final tip for today’s Lake Anna crappie that tend to be more pressured than ever, especially with forward facing sonar anglers from McCotter: “Schools that stuck around and bit for a while are much more finicky now due to fishing pressure. Once you have located them, I would suggest switching off forward-facing sonar as well as staying way off of the school. You wil catch more, instead of one or two before they turn off or move away into open water.”

 Enjoy the next two months because they will offer some of the best big crappie fishing opportunities of the year.

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